What It Means Now That the Senate Has 'Gone Nuclear'

The rules change is likely to have lasting impacts, leaving members of both parties embittered

Senate Republicans triggered the "nuclear option" Thursday after Democrats filibustered Neil Gorsuch's nomination to the Supreme Court. Credit: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg/Getty

On Thursday, Senate Republicans blew up the chamber's time-honored filibuster to get Neil Gorsuch onto the Supreme Court, leaving members of both parties embittered.

"Each side escalates. The base on each side of the aisle demands more," Republican Sen. Bob Corker tells Rolling Stone. "This is not a good moment, which is a huge understatement, for our nation."

While Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to never change the filibuster on everyday legislation, like Obamacare or even tax reform, other lawmakers doubt his sincerity and resolve, since many conservatives argue that Senate rules have stalled the legislative agenda of House Republicans.

"I don't think there's any question that the next time there's a big legislative issue, and one side of the aisle thinks it's the most important thing in the world to them, at that moment there will be a movement towards [getting rid of the filibuster] on the legislative side," says Corker. "I know there are members that have already discussed that."

The vote to deploy the so-called nuclear option, which blew up the filibuster and possibly the upper chamber's ability to function, was itself a case study in the partisanship that mires the contemporary Senate. Every Republican – all 52 of them – voted to undo the rule, while every Democrat, along with the two progressive Independents who caucus with them, opposed the rule change.

Many Republicans argue they were forced into a corner once Democrats employed the filibuster. And Democrats say they were boxed in, with their base still smarting from Republicans' unprecedented refusal to hold hearings and take a vote on former President Obama's pick for the Court, Merrick Garland.

But even some Republican senators who blew up the rules aren't happy about it.

"We'll all live to regret it," John McCain told reporters at the Capitol Thursday. "I think to a significant degree it's the end of the unique role that the Senate plays, that Benjamin Franklin talked about: the saucer that cools the coffee. That is now disappearing."

Without that saucer – the 100-person Senate that was formerly the world's most deliberative body, protected from the rowdy passions that often rule the 435-member House – it seems the nation is about to get hot coffee spilled in its lap every time control of the upper chamber flips.

"At some point, we have to decide if we want to be the Senate or the House of Representatives, and hopefully after today we can all sit down together and decide if we're going to maintain any of the Senate's normal prerogatives," Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy tells Rolling Stone.

Some senators are predicting the change will have an immediate impact on the nation's already ungodly expensive elections.

"I think it will make every Senate seat even more important, and future Senate campaigns are going to be more referendums on the Court than they've ever been, because every seat matters," says Sen. Lindsey Graham. "If you don't have to get 60 votes, then the simple majority gives the ability to control the courts, so every Senate seat is going to have that component to it now."

Graham fears the rule change and bitter atmosphere in the Senate will spill over into the judicial branch. "It means that judges in the future will probably be more ideological, because without having to reach across the aisle, you will have a more ideological pick," Graham says.

There are bipartisan talks taking place on everything from tax reform to a massive infrastructure package. Republican Sen. Susan Collins attempted to get her more moderate colleagues on board with a bipartisan letter opposing the rules change. That effort failed, and she ultimately supported the nuclear option.

"I'm hoping we can get back on track," Collins tells Rolling Stone. "I am worried that our attempts to negotiate a compromise failed, because there's such a profound lack of trust. And I think that's what many of us are trying to rebuild."